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The world's best-known Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, delivered a stinging tirade yesterday against rival Palestinian factions in his first public appearance in Israel since he left the country more than 35 years ago.

The 66-year-old poet, who was born in a village near Acre, described the infighting between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza as "a public attempt at suicide in the streets." He spoke to a packed Mt. Carmel Auditorium in Haifa. The event was also broadcast live over Arab satellite television and on large screens in adjacent halls.

"We became independent," Darwish said mockingly. "Gaza became independent of the West Bank - for one people, two countries, two prisons." He noted bitterly that the warring two factions made the possibility of creating a Palestinian state one of the seven wonders of the world. He also directed barbs at Israel, blaming the Jewish state for not taking advantage of a historical chance to make peace.

Among the people who came to see Darwish speak and read his poetry were his former colleagues at the communist newspaper Al-Ittihad, where he had worked as editor-as-chief until he left Israel in 1971 for Lebanon and Jordan. Officials from the Arab parliamentary faction Hadash, which organized the poet's appearance, noted with satisfaction that the audience included blue-collar workers and not only intellectuals.

One of those workers was Awda al-Ashhab, 85, who worked in Al-Ittihad's printing room when Darwish was editor. "I was cross at him for leaving. He is needed here more than anywhere else in the Arab world. They have many intellectuals and poets there. We need all the men of words we can get here," he complained.

Awda's former boss at Al-Ittihad, Matiya Nasser, who ran the printing room, said he understands why Darwish had to leave. "He needed to spread his wings. The air here wasn't enough for him."

Among the predominantly Arab-Israeli crowd that assembled to hear Darwish were Jews - some of whom didn't even speak Arabic and could not understand what was being said.

Ilana Shahaf, who organizes an annual poetry festival in the Negev kibbutz of Sde Boker, said that she came to share in the Arab public's excitement. "I wanted to feel a stranger among the words. As I climbed up the stairs with the crowd, I felt really excited for them. After all, no Hebrew-speaking poet today can generate this kind of excitement," she explained.